Interviewed by Caitlin Carmody, BCAction Membership Coordinator
We are excited to introduce you to Britta Reida, a BCAction member who lives in Vermont and blogs at Britta’s Boob Blog, in our BCAction Member Perspective, a feature you’ll find in each issue of The Source. If you’d be interested in telling your story for a future issue, please contact BCAction Membership Coordinator Caitlin Carmody.
Q: What brought you to Breast Cancer Action? How are you involved?
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, I knew next to nothing about the disease, but within six days, I was already ranting in my blog after discovering the pervasive pink ribbon craziness I intuitively knew I wanted no part of. Stumbling upon Breast Cancer Action was like finding fresh air to breathe! Here was an organization with nary a pink ribbon in sight that speaks the unbiased truth and shares my social justice values.
In the beginning, my focus was primarily on choosing the right treatments to deal with my breast cancer and getting through them. It wasn’t until a few months after surgery and radiation treatments that I was able to step back and think about not only the 4.5 cm of cancer that had been inside me but the breast cancer epidemic as a whole. That was when I really appreciated BCAction.
Q: What has most surprised you about “breast cancer culture” and how the general public understands the breast cancer epidemic?
Shortly after I was diagnosed, I was overwhelmed by how many people contacted me to say, “Oh, my mother/aunt/neighbor/coworker had breast cancer — you should call her!” It seemed like everyone I knew also knew someone who had breast cancer. While I was saddened to learn about how much the breast cancer rate had skyrocketed over the years, I was even more upset to discover that, despite the fact that breast cancer is clearly an epidemic that we need to take collective action to address, many people were viewing it entirely as a personal problem — even a self-inflicted one! I couldn’t believe how many bogus theories people had for what caused my cancer (repressed anger, childhood trauma, or too much sugar), or how I should treat it (ignore my doctors, “elevate my thought patterns,” or “visualize the tumor shrinking”). In the breast cancer support groups I went to, women wondered out loud if their diagnoses were partially caused by too much stress or too much partying in college. Being diagnosed with cancer is no one’s fault, and self-blame is a waste of energy that could be better spent.
My focus right now is in trying to increase people’s understanding that breast cancer is not just a personal problem, but a societal problem we need to view with a “big picture” lens and take collective action to address. When I was diagnosed at age 30, I was otherwise very healthy and fit, with no family history of the disease. I had never smoked or drunk alcohol, always had a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI), never took hormones or birth control pills, had been eating a vegetarian and largely organic diet for the previous nine years, had been exercising regularly (I was a trapeze student!), slept well, used only natural body care and household products, and on and on. I was practically the poster child for the cancer prevention lifestyle, and still I was diagnosed. This is why I get angry when anyone dares to suggest that my behaviors or lifestyle had anything to do with the cancer’s cause, and why I’m weary of the breast cancer prevention resources that encourage women to just eat vegetables, stay skinny, avoid alcohol, and exercise. It’s more complicated than that. After learning that the town I lived in for the first 23 years of my life had a breast cancer rate that was 20 percent higher than the rest of the state, I started reading about the environmental causes of breast cancer and the dangers of chemical exposures. BCAction, the Breast Cancer Fund, the Silent Spring Institute, and Sandra Steingraber’s book- Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment– were invaluable resources for me. After reading all of this information, I couldn’t believe that anyone could deny the link between chemical exposure and increased breast cancer risk.
Q: What do you think are the most important steps to ending the breast cancer epidemic? What are your thoughts about how we take those steps?
While I’m weary of the breast cancer resources that totally ignore the link between chemical exposure and breast cancer risk, I’m equally weary of the resources that do acknowledge the link, but put the onus of responsibility entirely on the individual to avoid chemicals through personal behavior changes. This lets the corporations who produce and market the chemicals (and the government that allows them to) completely off the hook. Following all of the cancer-prevention rules would be a full-time job and require more money than I or most people have. And even if I spent my days jogging to and from the farmers’ market with my BPA-free water bottle; cooking organic meals from scratch; doing yoga and meditating on my pesticide-free lawn while wearing organic clothing I’ve laundered in natural detergent; and using flashcards until I’ve memorized the “Top Ten Canned Food Items to Avoid,” the “12 Most Contaminated Vegetables,” and “Ingredients to Avoid in Cosmetics,” there’s still no guarantee I wouldn’t be diagnosed with a recurrence someday. As long as big corporations continue to pollute our soil, air, water, and food, and their products with chemical cocktails, and the government continues to let them, our individual choices and lifestyle changes are just a drop in the bucket.
People and organizations who give advice about breast cancer prevention need to take it a step further. Instead of just saying, “Choose fresh food that doesn’t come in a can lined with BPA,” they could say, “While you’re eating your BPA-free food, call your representative to ask them to cosponsor the legislation to ban BPA from all food and beverage containers.” I’m sick of hearing only about all of the ways in which we can each personally try to protect our bodies and homes from toxins, as if these toxins are just raining down from the heavens, and there’s nothing we can do but put up our umbrellas. It is human beings that are polluting the earth and our bodies with these chemicals, and if enough of us joined together and used our collective voice and power to demand that legislators regulate the polluters so they stop polluting, we could create serious change. I love Breast Cancer Action for not saying, “Hey, women, stop drinking milk contaminated with rBGH hormones,” but instead saying, “Hey, Eli Lilly, stop manufacturing the rBGH that goes in our milk!” Breast Cancer Action redirects our focus to where it should be!
Q: You are an activist working to end the breast cancer epidemic. How can other people like you get involved in the work to end this epidemic?
The first and easiest step, for me, was to join the mailing lists of Breast Cancer Action and other organizations with similar values and missions, such as Pesticide Action Network, Breast Cancer Fund, and League of Conservation Voters. Several times a week, I click the links they send me to take actions such as signing petitions or e-mailing my local representatives about legislation involving environmental toxins. It’s quick, and the more people who do this and encourage their friends and family to do this, the better.
I boycott corporations that produce and market products with carcinogenic substances, and sometimes even write to them to specifically tell them why I’m not buying their products and why I’m encouraging my friends and family to do the same. For example, thanks to BCAction’s wonderful “What the Cluck?” campaign, I wrote to KFC to oppose their ridiculous “Buckets for the Cure” promotion. On the flip side, I make an equally strong effort to support businesses that sell products and services that are good for people’s health and the health of the planet. I am a shareholder and frequent shopper at the local food co-op, which uses BPA-free cash register paper and carries a large variety of local, organic fair-trade foods and natural, organic household and body care products.
I also regularly talk about the environmental causes of breast cancer on Facebook, breast cancer message boards, and my blog, and in conversation with family, friends, women at breast cancer support groups, and my doctors. The more we all work together, the stronger our collective power will be!
The Source—Spring 2011 | 6.8.11
© 2011, Breast Cancer Action ISSN #1993-2408, published quarterly by BCAction.
Articles on detection and treatment do not constitute endorsements or medical advice but are intended solely to inform. Requested annual donation is $50, but no one is refused for lack of funds. “Breast Cancer Action,” “Think Before You Pink,” and the BCAction logo are the registered trademarks of Breast Cancer Action. All rights reserved. Not to be used without express written permission.